A quick scan of Amazon reveals ten different Sonny Liston books currently available to buy. Some deal with his life in broad terms while others centre on iconic moments – that phantom punch, for example. I’ve read only a couple of them and both relied heavily on Muhammad Ali. Books on Liston often rely on Ali to grab mainstream attention, perhaps even get published, and they also use Ali to shape and simplify a story shrouded in mystery; Liston, when lightly sketched, is the guy who blinded Cassius Clay, the guy who scowled at him, scared him, lost his title to him and then rolled over for him in the rematch, the guy who jumpstarted the process of Clay becoming Ali, contender becoming champion, upstart becoming legend. He is merely a plot point along Ali’s character arc. It’s why Will Smith played The Greatest and Liston got Michael Bentt.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached the latest Liston book, The Murder of Sonny Liston: A Story of Fame, Heroin, Boxing & Las Vegas by Shaun Assael. That’s not to say I am tired of Sonny Liston. Far from it. The issue, for me at least, is that I have read and watched enough on Ali this year, the year we sadly said goodbye to him, to last me a lifetime and assumed any new book ostensibly about Liston, especially one published in 2016, would feature a total eclipse of Sonny, some bear-baiting and a by-the-numbers account of Ali shaking up the world in Miami Beach, Florida after a champion remained on his stool.
Robert Lipsyte, the esteemed New York Times columnist, goes as far as to say Liston “became part of other people’s stories”, to which Assael adds, “He was the springboard for Ali, the model for Foreman, the guy who always scared (but never faced) Frazier.” It’s a succinct way of summarising my problem with the various attempts to explore the Sonny Liston story. As a boxer, he’s portrayed only as the opponent, the brooding, brutish heel against whom Ali floated and stung. But that’s kind of missing the point and Assael knows this, which is why The Murder of Sonny Liston shines in a period of Thrilla and Rumble overkill. It is a focused book about The (possible) Murder of Sonny Liston, one that doesn’t require Ali for context or comfort, nor cast Liston as a supporting character in his own movie. Instead, finally, Liston has the starring role, flanked not by famous heavyweight boxers but by mobsters, showgirls, crooked police officers, degenerates and junkies. His people. We get to know the personalities who moulded him, surrounded him, betrayed him, maybe even killed him. Meanwhile, Ali, as a character, remains crucial – he did, lest we forget, dethrone Liston in ’64 and then strike him with the so-called phantom punch the following year – but only to a point; there is mention of the deal Liston’s management may or may not have struck with Ali before their rematch which may or may not have resulted in Liston taking a dive and then claiming a percentage of all Ali’s future ring earnings. Beyond that, in Sonny’s real world, a world even darker than boxing, Ali fades into insignificance.
Assael, a member of ESPN’s investigations unit, is typically thorough in his research and approach yet manages to balance a meticulous attention to detail with a consideration for his audience, which is to say he never loses sight of the need to tell a story. The narrative is fluid and engaging, while the Las Vegas backdrop, arguably as important a character as any human being featured, is as alluring on the page as it is when witnessed in person. There is also a degree of ambiguity, questions left unanswered, which serves to intrigue rather than frustrate. Like Vegas itself, the book teases and suggests but never offers satisfactory resolution. Even in the compelling third and final part, Confession, the section in which the book cools its retrospective account of Liston’s escapades and final days and deals in the here and now, the aftermath, the conspiracies, there’s no hint of a pay-off or conclusion. Rather, the fun of the book is in the suspense and the thrill of the chase, something best exemplified when Assael tracks down Larry Gandy on Facebook and finds a retired cop, a man suspected of killing Liston, only too happy to meet and field questions pertaining to Liston’s death. “So, you’ve come to ask me if I killed Sonny Liston,” he says upon greeting Assael. It’s a line which will either send a shiver down your spine or have you rubbing your hands together in anticipation. For me, it was confirmation that this wasn’t any old Sonny Liston book.